Uh oh: Black voters about to walk away from Biden?

If what Politico reports comes to pass, Joe Biden might well and truly be finished — if. As a second straight disaster loomed in New Hampshire, Biden fled for the friendlier confines of South Carolina, presumably to reassure African-American voters that he plans to stick with them. However, they have a message for Biden — they may not return the favor:

“There’s blood in the water,” said Quentin James, executive director of The Collective, a political action committee that backs African American candidates. “Black voters are starting to leave him now. … A big reason lots of black voters were with Biden is they thought he was the best person to beat Trump. And they thought one reason for that is that he had the support of white voters. Now they see he has done so poorly with white voters and he no longer looks like the electability candidate.”

The size and scope of the loss — he failed to crack double digits or win any sizable city or town — challenged the wisdom of Biden’s strategy of not competing hard in New Hampshire. Biden had downplayed expectations of doing well here, claiming New Hampshire favored politicians from neighboring states, like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. But two politicians from the Midwest, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg, finished ahead of Biden, undercutting his talking point.

“This is horrendous. We’re all scared,” said a Biden adviser, speaking anonymously because the comments conflict with the brave public face the campaign is trying to broadcast. “I think we’re going to make it to South Carolina. I know we’re supposed to say we’re going to and we’re going to win. But I just don’t know.”

This may not be a new issue, either. Even before the Iowa caucus debacle showed Biden’s competitive edge might be more myth than reality, black voters had begun to drain away from Biden in South Carolina. A Post & Courier/Change Research poll at the end of last month showed that Biden had lost twenty points among African-Americans over the course of the primary campaign, with Tom Steyer and Bernie Sanders chipping away at Biden’s base of support:

The vice president to the country’s first African American president received 30 percent backing from S.C. black voters in the latest Post and Courier-Change Research poll. Biden was receiving support from half of the state’s black voters over the summer.

Steyer’s work to make in-roads with South Carolina’s African American community, including visiting areas with large black populations and hiring black staffers, appear to be paying off. He received backing from 24 percent of black voters. Sanders follows at 16 percent with Warren at 10 percent.

This in its own way tends to refute the idea that Biden’s support among African-Americans is entirely based on electability, though. Do they really think that Tom Steyer is more electable? Even with his poor performance, Biden got more than twice as many votes in New Hampshire than Steyer did. In comparison, Sanders has only grown his share of black voters in this polling series from ~5% in June 2019 to 16% now — not bad, but it’s not a sea-change momentum swing either.

The decline for Biden here is likely due to Steyer’s decision to focus almost exclusively on retail politicking in South Carolina, and that’s likely why Biden decided on an early return, too. He needs to make up ground lost while campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire, and so far there’s no real indication that a massive walkout of African-American voters is in the offing. Biden’s still got high favorables in this demographic, and that means he can still woo voters back to his team. A strong performance in South Carolina likely will do Biden more good than attempting to rescue himself in Nevada, and he can’t afford to leave the field to Steyer alone for another ten days. (Karen Townsend will have more on Steyer’s plans later this evening, so stay tuned.)

It’s still a big bet, though, and Biden has to win it. If he doesn’t get a clear win in South Carolina, backed by a strong showing among African-American voters in the state, Biden’s electability argument will completely fall apart. And if he does win in South Carolina, it sets up a long and painful fight all the way to the convention floor for Democrats, for which they can eventually thank Steyer.